Marshall Mathers, more well known by his stage name Eminem, is an artist that was perfectly suited for his time. His transgressive and derisive music exploded in popularity in an uneasy turn-of-the-century where 1990s economic prosperity was downswinging into fears of the new millennium. When 8 Mile was announced in 2000 at the height of Eminem’s popularity, there was the familiar eye-rolling assumption that the celebrity musician was making a self-stroking vehicle for himself and his fans. Aside from the immediate success of films like Ernest R. Dickerson’s Juice and John Singleton’s Poetic Justice, movies led by prominent celebrity musicians, especially from hip-hop and R&B, were met with skepticism from the press. It took at least a decade for people outside of the Black community to realize the brilliance of Hype Williams’ Belly or Jeff Pollack’s Above the Rim. 8 Mile could easily have become a crass vanity project. While it did base itself off of Eminem’s rough upbringing in a less-than-prosperous part of Detroit, it’s the rare film that incorporates its musical star’s talent beyond their recognizable face.
Directed by Curtis Hanson—whose Oscar-winning and Palme d’Or-nominated repertoire includes L.A. Confidential, Bad Influence, The Hand that Rocks the Cradle and Wonder Boys—8 Mile made the case that Eminem had real talent as an actor. His performance, supported by a veteran of the craft like Kim Basinger but also surrounded by younger contemporaries like Mekhi Phifer, Michael Shannon, Anthony Mackie and Brittany Murphy, blended into the familiar surroundings. His shrouding gray hoodie, slightly obscuring his intense, wide-eyed demeanor, blurred the lines between Eminem, platinum-record holding superstar rapper, and B Rabbit, the nobody who chokes every time he gets on stage.
Eminem’s multifaceted performance shouldn’t have been a surprise. While being pissed off, cussing and yelling is perhaps the most recognizable traits of Eminem’s rap persona—and there’s plenty of that in 8 Mile—he embodies much more. 8 Mile producer Brian Grazer mentioned in Rolling Stone that when he saw Eminem on TV once, “in the span of six or seven seconds, he goes from this icy, urban, scary glare to this fluid, self-effacing, kind of fun character.” Eminem’s performance has its share of comedic moments. B-Rabbit ad libs his own self-effacing lyrics with Future to the tune of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” while they fix his mom’s broken hand-me-down car. Eminem’s vocal intonation is where his performance is most impressive. He sings the lyrics with a sardonic twinge that perfectly displays his mockery.
While the story is a familiar underdog arc, Hanson and screenwriter Scott Silver imbue 8 Mile with an authenticity that speaks to Detroit’s unique place in the culture of rap and the ways the economic and social dynamics of the city influenced the rise of both Black and white artists. Several of the movie’s most memorable scenes exist outside of the rap battles that have come to define its popularity. When Jimmy AKA B-Rabbit goes out on a Saturday night, shooting paintballs out of his car with his group of friends (known as the “313 crew”), they have conversations about ranking rappers. Sol George (Omar Benson Miller) frustratedly asks “What’s with all this East Coast, West Coast thing? We gotta put the Mo on the map.”
Detroit’s budding rap scene exists in the fibers of the community in 8 Mile, showing up even at B Rabbit’s day job at a steel press factory. During a lunch break, two factory workers Vanessa and Mike—respectively played by Detroit-based rappers Miz Korona and Xzibit—battle near a food truck, rapping about the angst they feel being trapped within the city’s low-wage workforce. 8 Mile is authentically Detroit in its working-class environment, but it is also authentically early-2000s in attitude. The rap battle that ensues, like many others in the film, is filled with confrontational and sometimes offensive—specifically homophobic—lyrics. Eminem himself has gotten in hot water a few times for homophobia-laden lyrics, including in songs like “Rap God” and “Real Slim Shady.” It’s one of the more unfortunate reasons why Eminem fits in so seamlessly with the movie’s energy.
Hanson and Silver sprinkle a lot of Eminem’s personal life into the story, not just as narrative material or song content but as a backdrop that either inspired his life or his music. Eminem spoke in that same Rolling Stone interview about how he doesn’t consider 8 Mile to be about him: “There are similarities because I sat down with Scott Silver, the script writer, and told him instances from my life that were used in the movie, some exactly the way they happened, some a little bit different.” The influences and contemporaries of Eminem’s music career are there too. References to Biggie, Tupac and the Beastie Boys are obvious, but less obvious are the cameos by some of Eminem’s collaborators like Obie Trice and King Gordy.
An inspired if on-the-nose reference comes in a scene where Jimmy’s mom watches Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life. The film’s inclusion nods to both the racial overtones in a character having an identity crisis between white and Black culture in America, but also in the dysfunctional relationships both Sarah Jane and Jimmy (and by extension Eminem) have with their mothers. In the case of the former, Sarah Jane, who is white-passing, rejects the Black heritage of her mother in order to fit in more with the white-dominant society in her hometown and school. B-Rabbit’s existence as a white rapper, a music genre dominated by Black men, leads him to a point of self-reflection of his white upbringing that becomes a major crux of his evolution as a rapper. Both of these instances are siphoned through a relationship with the characters’ mothers. The Imitation of Life scene that plays is one where Sarah Jane’s mom Annie comes to see her at school, revealing her true race, which sends Sara Jane into an angry storm and rejection of her mother. Eminem explicitly displays disdain for his upbringing and his mother’s paranoid behavior: Songs like “Criminal” and “Cleanin’ Out My Closet” include lyrics like “Just try to envision witnessin’ your mama poppin’ prescription pills in the kitchen, bitchin’ that someone’s always goin’ through her purse and shit’s missin’, goin’ through public housin’ systems, victim of Munchhausen’s Syndrome. My whole life I was made to believe I was sick when I wasn’t…”
This connection to cinema history emphasizes that 8 Mile marked a fascinating point in Eminem’s career where the rapper briefly turned to acting. Considering the film’s his performance’s positive reception, one can’t help but wonder if he couldn’t have switched careers, or at least done both simultaneously to great success like Lady Gaga or Jamie Foxx. It’s perhaps a strange suggestion: Asking Eminem to step back from a rap career near the absolute top of its popularity, hot off his single best album, The Eminem Show. Yet in hindsight, with the knowledge of Relapse’s failure and a rap-style and tone that, while still attractive to his plethora of fans, has waned in critical appreciation beyond the Bush-era, could Mathers’ acting skills have led to a lengthy stint in Hollywood?
Eminem had other offers, of course. His performance in 8 Mile caught attention from critics, including Roger Ebert, who expressed that “Eminem survives the X-ray truth-telling of the movie camera, which is so good at spotting phonies.” Eminem mentioned that he heard Ice Cube say, “if you can perform on a stage, then acting is a natural transition,” but that wasn’t the case for him. He said it was a different atmosphere “when the music is off and you need to remember lines and be natural. It’s different.” Perhaps that’s why—his cameo appearances in Judd Apatow’s Funny People and Seth Rogen’s The Interview aside—he turned down the lead in Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium, a role that eventually went to Matt Damon. Eminem refused to do the movie unless Blomkamp filmed it in Detroit. His pride for Detroit is an obvious part of his music and career, but the feelings of comfort in that city, a natural element for the rapper, played a big part in why he felt comfortable with acting. He explained that the city is “all I know” and he considers the mentality and vibrancy of the city to come from its underdog mentality. He says, “I feel like we’ve always been the underdog and that’s kind of how I’ve always taken that, kept that with me. That fighting spirit that Detroit has.”
Eminem’s performance in 8 Mile serves as a reminder of his talents and ability outside of the recording studio and music videos. His performance as B-Rabbit has inspirations from his own life, but Eminem also distances himself from his rap persona while still evoking the tenacity of an eager and angry underdog. His abilities to showcase B-Rabbit’s transition from being afraid on stage to being a comedian with his friends to being a loving older brother with Lily portrays a range that surely could have translated into roles for Eminem beyond this one. 8 Mile left a cultural mark on a generation, and encapsulates the talent that resides within one of the most divisive voices in the rap genre.
Soham Gadre is an entertainment and culture writer based in Washington D.C. He has written for Polygon, MUBI Notebook, The Film Stage, and Film Inquiry among other publications. He has a Twitter account where he talks about movies, basketball, and food.